Opening Remarks By Maria Barrados, President, Public Service Commission of Canada to the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates concerning Special Report to Parliament: Merit and Non-Partisanship under the Public Service Employment Act (2003)

March 22, 2011 (11 a.m.)

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Thank you and good morning.

I am pleased to be here with Mr. Donald Lemaire, Senior Vice-President, Policy, and Mr. Gaston Arsenault, Vice President, Legal Services, to discuss our Special Report on Merit and non-partisanship under the Public Service Employment Act (2003) that was tabled in Parliament earlier today. This report reflects the views of the Commission as it approaches the end of its mandate. We hope it will also provide useful input into Parliament’s five-year statutory review required by the Act.

The Public Service Employment Act affirmed the PSC’s mandate as a guardian of merit and non-partisanship in the federal public service, first enshrined in federal statute over one hundred years ago. With the passage of the November 2003 Act, the Commission’s role is clear. We have put in place a highly delegated system, with appropriate oversight and supporting guidance and support, with regular reports to this Committee.

As we noted in our 2009-10 Annual Report to Parliament, the essential elements of the Act are now in place. Significant progress has been made. Five years after the coming into full force of the PSEA, it is too early to draw final, definitive conclusions about its implementation. However, we believe the essential structure of the Act is sound and will stand the test of time.

Our Report focuses on three key issues that, in our opinion, need attention, and we offer some recommendations for addressing them. Number one, we need to improve the effectiveness of the staffing system; number two, enhance the approach for safeguarding the non-partisanship of the public service; and number three, strengthen the governance and operation of the Commission.

An effective staffing system is the backbone of a modern, well-functioning professional public service. There are, however, substantial opportunities to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the staffing system. Our report describes four:

  • First, our experience over the past five years has confirmed the ongoing need for some centralized services to assist deputy heads and managers in assuming their roles under the Act. These services, which include our electronic recruitment system as well as several national recruitment programs, can foster greater efficiencies and improvements in the staffing system. A delegated system needs to be balanced with centralized support functions.
  • Second, we need more proactive, integrated planning to better manage the entire workforce, not only the permanent workforce but also the contingent workforce. The use of term employees, casuals, contractors and temporary help workers should be part of the planning.
  • Third, there are difficulties in the recourse system that need to be addressed. The statutory requirement for double notification of appointments has proven to be administratively burdensome for large processes. We’ve also made recommendations to address a gap in the system where deputy heads are directly involved in an internal appointment process. Under the PSEA, the Commission currently cannot investigate these processes.
  • Fourth, continued effort is required to improve data analysis and measurement.

I would like to now turn to the issue of non-partisanship of the federal public service. The PSC’s mandate to independently safeguard this core value is clearly laid out in the Preamble of the PSEA and Part 7 of the Act which sets out specific obligations regarding political activities by public servants.

There are always tensions between the non-partisanship of a public service and the need for a public service to respond effectively and loyally to the direction of elected officials. Scholars have pointed to the pressures to politicize bureaucracies; while these pressures are not as prevalent in Canada, there are ongoing questions. We have identified gaps that need to be addressed with respect to processes involving Governor-in-Council appointments, political activities of public servants, and relations between the public service and the political sphere.

I would like to briefly elaborate. In our professional, non-partisan public service, it is established that appointments are independent of Ministers, must be merit-based, non-partisan and independently overseen. The Privy Council Office has processes in place with respect to GIC appointments. However, there is no independent assurance that the appointments to positions of leadership are merit-based and not politically influenced.

We recommend that further steps be taken to ensure external appointments (from outside the public service) of deputy heads, associate deputy heads and heads and members of separate agencies and boards to the core public service are based on merit, non-partisan and subject to independent oversight. This could be done by an organization like the Public Appointments Commission which was provided for in the 2006 Federal Accountability Act. Alternatively it could be added to the responsibilities of the Public Service Commission of Canada.

We identified a need for increased awareness of organizations and individuals about non-partisanship as set out in the Preamble and Part 7. Work needs to continue on providing greater clarity to public servants through policy or regulation. We also recommend a statutory change that would allow the PSC to investigate any complaint of improper political activity on the part of a Deputy Head.

This brings me to the relationship between the public service and the political sphere, particularly ministerial staff. There is a need for improved guidance to political staffers on their relationship with the public service. Accordingly, we are recommending that a Code of Conduct for Ministerial Staff be put in place to provide clear guidance on the relationship between ministerial staff and public servants.

Progress has been made in managing the movement of former ministerial staff into the public service, following the December 2006 amendments to the PSEA.

I would like to now turn to the issue of strengthening the governance and operation of the PSC. Over the past five years, the Commission has successfully reoriented itself to play a leadership role in the implementation of the PSEA. We have made changes in how the PSC operates within the statutory framework, and we have recommended additional measures to improve the capacity of the PSC to fulfill its mandate.

The Commission itself has gone from full-time Commissioners to part-time members. The statute did not go far enough in modernizing the governance and operation of the Commission. We recommend that the PSEA confirm the current operation and division of duties between the President and part-time Commissioners.

We further recommend a series of legislative amendments to increase the capacity of the Commission that includes:

  • providing Commissioners in office with a role in the appointment of other Commissioners;
  • using fixed rate of pay for setting the President’s salary; and
  • allowing the PSC to table its reports directly to Parliament.

Other legislative proposals to remove barriers to our operations include:

  • providing authority to contract for goods and services;
  • allowing some of our services to be provided to other jurisdictions, for instance, language testing to provinces; and
  • providing protection to our auditors and investigators as well as our audit reports and documents.

Mr. Chair, for more than a hundred years, the PSC has protected merit and non-partisanship in the public service. We can be proud of the public service we have today. Our observations and recommendations are intended to help ensure the Act’s sustainability, so that Canadians will continue to have the professional, merit-based, non-partisan public service they need and deserve.

In closing, we would like to extend our gratitude to Parliamentarians, in particular Members of this Committee, for your ongoing interest in the issues we have raised. We would like to thank deputy heads for their engagement and advice. Most of all, I would like to thank the staff of the PSC for their dedication and support in doing the important work of the Commission.

Thank you, I am pleased to answer any questions you may have.